Predicting 5 Surprises from the Final Week of 2015 MLB Spring Training
We are now just a week from the start of the 2015 MLB season, but there is still a lot of work to do as teams make their final and, generally, most difficult decisions to trim their rosters down to 25 players.
That roster crunch always makes for at least a few surprises.
Whether it's an unexpected non-roster invitee forcing his way onto a team, a deserving player winding up on the outside looking in, a late-spring trade or the outright release of an established veteran, a lot can happen before teams pack up and head north.
Predicting these moves is obviously tricky, but a glance at the projected outlook of each roster can potentially give us some hints.
What follows is a prediction of five surprises from the final week of spring training before the long-awaited arrival of Opening Day.
Rafael Soriano Goes Unsigned
This is becoming more and more of a safe prediction as Opening Day nears, but it's still surprising to see Rafael Soriano unsigned at this point.
The 35-year-old finished last season with a 3.19 ERA, 1.129 WHIP and 32 saves in 39 chances, which would have been a solid season had he not completely unraveled in the second half.
A legitimate All-Star snub after posting a 0.97 ERA and converting 22 of 24 save opportunities in the first half, he was a completely different pitcher to begin the second half. After posting a 6.98 ERA and blowing five saves in 14 chances over his first 21 appearances of the second half, he was eventually removed from the closer's role in favor of Drew Storen.
Can Soriano be trusted to handle closer duties again? Probably not, but he's still a viable big league reliever, and at this point, he should come cheap.
With a handful of closers around the league set to begin the year on the disabled list (Kenley Jansen, Koji Uehara, Jake McGee), he'd at least make for useful depth.
Asher Wojciechowski Is Optioned to the Minors
There are always a handful of mid-level prospects who impress each spring and push for a rotation spot, and right-hander Asher Wojciechowski falls into that category this year.
The No. 41 pick in the 2010 draft by the Toronto Blue Jays, Wojciechowski was traded to Houston in the 10-player deadline deal that was highlighted by J.A. Happ.
He enters the 2015 season as the No. 28 prospect in the Astros system, according to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook. He was part of a handful of pitchers competing for the No. 5 starter job when spring began.
Now that competition is down to two guys: Wojciechowski and Roberto Hernandez.
On merit alone, the job should belong to Wojciechowski. The 26-year-old has a 1.08 ERA, 0.960 WHIP and 13 strikeouts in 16.2 innings of work.
However, for the overall depth of the roster, it might make more sense to give the spot to non-roster invitee Hernandez to begin the year.
Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle explained:
Because of the 34-year-old Hernandez’s veteran status, the Astros have to either put him on the 25-man roster, release him or pay him $100,000 no later than five days before opening day — by 11 a.m. CT on Tuesday. ...
... Even though Wojciechowski has pitched better this spring, Hernandez certainly hasn’t pitched poorly. He has a big league track record, and most importantly for the Astros, he’s a capable warm body where they don’t have enough.
In fact, the Astros might be foolish to do anything but Hernandez on the team for one reason: depth.
If Hernandez is not on the team, he’ll go to another club. Wojciechowski, meanwhile, can be sent to Class AAA where he’ll be ready in the wings, and certainly needed at some point.
All of that seems to be pointing to Wojciechowski, one of the standouts of spring, ticketed back to the minors for the time being.
Ian Stewart Is an Opening Day Starter
There was a time when Ian Stewart looked as though he'd be a staple at third base for the Colorado Rockies for years to come.
Ranked as high as the No. 4 prospect in the league by Baseball America in 2005, one of five times he appeared on the preseason top 100 list, Stewart entered the league with no shortage of hype.
He had a solid .788 OPS over the first three seasons of his career, averaging 18 home runs and 57 RBI in 359 at-bats, but he was never able to establish himself as a legitimate everyday option.
Injuries have plagued him since the start of the 2011 season, and he's seen a total of just 369 at-bats. Over that span, he's hit an uninspired .182/.263/.306 with seven home runs and 30 RBI while spending time with the Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Angels.
So why are we talking about the now 29-year-old former top prospect?
There is a good chance he's going to break camp as the starting third baseman for a Washington Nationals team that some have picked to win it all this year.
In camp trying to win a bench job as a non-roster invitee, Stewart has hit .270/.341/.541 with three home runs in 37 at-bats.
Stewart talked to James Wagner of The Washington Post about an improved mental approach this season:
This offseason, I just tried to get back to my old ways of hitting and ways of working out in the past. Really, just trying to be as comfortable as I can in the box. I’ve gotten into my own head a lot the last few years...I’m at a point where I’m completely comfortable in the box. I feel like my head is clear because I really felt so good hitting this winter that I feel confident again in the box. I’m comfortable, I’m loose, I’m not in my own head.
With incumbent third baseman Anthony Rendon looking more and more likely to begin the season on the disabled list with a knee injury, the door has opened for Stewart to fill a significant role and attempt to cement a long-term roster spot in the early going.
Mike Pelfrey Is Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies
The Minnesota Twins announced Saturday that left-hander Tommy Milone would begin the season as the team's No. 5 starter, according to a tweet from Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. That means that veteran Mike Pelfrey is headed to the bullpen, but given his $5.5 million salary, it would not be surprising to see the Twins try to deal him before the season begins.
That's an idea that the 31-year-old would welcome with open arms.
"Obviously if some team realizes I’m healthy for the first time in years and this is probably the best I’ve felt and thinks I can help them, let’s do it," Pelfrey told Mike Berardino of the Pioneer Press. "I think I showed them that I could start. If it happens, great. Let’s go."
Pelfrey made just three starts in 2012 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, and after a healthy 2013 season, he went under the knife again last June.
That said, he's looked terrific this spring, posting a 1.32 ERA, 1.244 WHIP and seven strikeouts in 13.2 innings of work.
There are a number of teams that could be in the market for an innings-eating veteran to round out their rotation, but the Philadelphia Phillies look like a good fit, provided they don't have to give up much more than salary relief.
Non-roster invitee Kevin Slowey currently looks like the front-runner for their No. 5 starter job, and while he has pitched to a solid 3.72 ERA in 9.2 innings this spring, Pelfrey could provide a bit more stability in that role.
The Phillies saw plenty of Pelfrey at his best during his time with the New York Mets, so they know as well as anyone what he's capable of when healthy.
He could also be a decent trade chip come July if he does bounce back, and that's attractive to a Phillies team that continues to look for young talent early in the rebuilding process.
Carlos Quentin Is Released or Traded
The San Diego Padres' bench situation will be one of the more interesting roster decisions to monitor as spring training comes to a close.
Assuming they keep 12 pitchers, which seems likely given their impressive crop of relievers, that leaves five bench spots.
Wil Nieves is probably locked into one of them as the backup catcher, leaving four spots for the following players:
- Clint Barmes
- Cameron Maybin
- Tommy Medica
- Carlos Quentin
- Yangervis Solarte
- Will Venable
The team could simply option Solarte and Medica, the two players without a big league contract, and be done with it. However, with the Padres eyeing a playoff spot, they'll be looking to do what's best for the team.
Medica is having another huge spring, hitting .471/.514/.882 with four home runs and 11 RBI, and he makes sense as a right-handed platoon partner for Yonder Alonso at first base. He'd be an easy option to the minors, but he's earned a spot at this point.
Barmes signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal this offseason, and unless the team trusts Solarte at shortstop, he's the only real backup there. That means Solarte begins the season in Triple-A after seemingly losing the third base job to Will Middlebrooks.
That leaves Quentin ($8 million), Maybin ($7.1 million) and Venable ($4.25 million) competing for the final two spots and likely means someone from that group winds up traded or outright released.
Maybin still has upside and another year under contract, while Venable would be the only left-handed bat on the bench, so cutting ties with the oft-injured Quentin looks like the best move for the organization.
It's hard to see much of a market for him, unless someone like the San Francisco Giants or Toronto Blue Jays, who have an opening in the outfield due to injury, come calling.
There are a ton of position battles to still be decided, but this looks like the one that could generate the biggest surprise.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.